Catholics, Racial Justice, and Reassessing Religion in the Long Civil Rights Movement

AHA Session 81
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Shana B. Bernstein, Southwestern University
William Issel, San Francisco State University

Session Abstract

What if historians placed Catholics, their world, and their institutional Church at the center of their histories?  In Catholics and the American Century (2012), scholars who, for the most part, have taken little heed of Catholics in their histories of American politics, society, and culture, explored how historical narratives would change if they considered the contribution of Catholics as Catholics to those histories.  This panel takes the central question of the book and applies it to the long civil rights movement in the North and nationally.  The discussion will appeal to historians interested in politics, urban and suburban history, African American history, the history of race, the history of religion, and the history of American Catholicism.

Most historians of the long movement, which extends loosely from the 1930s – 1970s, do not account for religious actors and the meanings they imparted to their actions.  The prevailing narrative about religion in the 1954-1965 period of the civil rights movement is that it was dominated by Protestant language.  But when we consider the long movement in Northern cities, often with large Catholic populations, we find a different narrative in which Catholics – black and white, women and men, religious and lay – were engaged in and contributed to the movement in ways shaped by their position as Catholics.  As the papers will show, the “Catholic” response to the black freedom movement was, by no means, unified.  Catholics disagreed about what should constitute the “Catholic” response to racial hierarchies.  Together, these papers will explore what it meant to black and white Catholics to address the issues raised by the black freedom movement, and how the actors’ Catholic way of addressing these questions shaped the public sphere.

Shana Bernstein, an expert in the history of 20th century civil rights and social reform, will situate the panel's contribution in the "American Century."  Shannen Williams will argue that centering black sisters in the struggle for racial and educational justice in twentieth-century Catholic America radically alters our understandings of the nature and chronology of the Church’s interactions with the civil rights movement and the larger fight for black freedom.  Karen Johnson will contend that placing Catholics and Catholicism at the center of suburban housing integration in the 1950s and 1960s shows that the debate over religion’s role in the public framed discussions and disagreements about integration.  Mathew Cressler will consider the deep divisions among black Catholics from the 1960s to the 1980s over how they should engage with the black power movement, and what it meant to be both authentically black and truly Catholic.  His research troubles the notion that black power was not religious.  Finally, Bill Issel, a historian of American Catholicism whose books have all dealt with civil rights, will close the panel by considering the papers in light of the historiographical questions raised by Catholics and the American Century.

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